SOUTHERN COLORADO — A board created by Colorado's state legislature, which develops standards for the treatment and supervision of convicted sex offenders, is changing the language surrounding the term "sex offender."
The Sex Offender Management Board (SOMB) was created in 1992 and works with around 500 treatment providers within the state, which serve approximately 2,000-3,000 sex offenders.
The Program Manager of the SOMB, Chris Lobanov-Rostovsky, said the board has previously looked at person-first language and making a transition from the term "sex offender" to something like "adults who have committed sexual offenses." He said their standards already include person-first language in a number of the sections. The board asked if that should be expanded to all sections, and assigned the topic to a subcommittee. "Trying to be sensitive in using person-first language on both sides. Not just on those who commit sexual offenses, but those who are victimized," said Lobanov-Rostovsky.
The subcommittee made a recommendation for a new guiding principle that described the importance of using person-first language with the sex offender population. Lobanov-Rostovsky said the board is required to create standards based on research and evidence. "The evidence is pretty conclusive that to use labels for people in a variety of areas, whether that's in a sexual offense, or a learning disability, or other types of scenarios, that to label somebody actually makes outcomes worse rather than better... If we use person-first language, that actually helps facilitate change and it decreases the likelihood, in this case, that someone will commit another sexual offense," said Lobanov-Rostovsky.
The guiding principle was approved by the SOMB, but replacement language for the term "sex offender" has not been selected yet. It will be discussed at a board meeting on Friday, November 19, with an opportunity for public testimony.
Lobanov-Rostovsky said all SOMB meetings are open to the public. Once the language has been changed, a public comment period will begin.
The board's direct influence is over professionals who work to rehabilitate sex offenders, like treatment providers, supervision officers, and victim advocates. It does not have any control of how the words are used when crimes are reported, investigated, or prosecuted. The SOMB's decision only impacts perpetrators who have already gone through the criminal justice system and are now on parole, probation, or are in prison.
"In fact, the board is the Sex Offender Management Board. So, we're not talking about changing our own name either, because that's a statutory prescription of who the board is. So, that would be up to the legislature to make those changes. But, I think the criminal justice system will continue to refer to people by crime, that won't change. We're talking about what happens afterwards and what is in the best interest of rehabilitation to make sure that these offenses do not occur again. And so, I think that's where we pick it up, is after the person's already been sentenced, and they're already labeled a sex offender, and they're already on sex offender supervision, they're already registering as a sex offender. So, those types of terms will not change," explained Lobanov-Rostovsky.
Lobanov-Rostovsky said there was a bill in Colorado's most recent legislative session that aimed to make adjustments to the work of the SOMB, and part of it addressed person-first language. He said the bill ultimately did not move forward, but it indicated the legislators would revisit the issue within the next two years or so. "Possibly in 2022 or 2023, there would be some revisiting of some adjustments to the work of the Sex Offender Management Board, that could include this person-first language initiative," said Lobanov-Rostovsky.
Lobanov-Rostovsky said there are two sides to this issue. "I understand from somebody who has been victimized, the nuance of the argument that we're having, or the discussion that we're having, probably doesn't make a lot of difference to them. They were harmed, and that's all they care about, and they just want to see the person held accountable and punished for that... I'm very understanding of people who might think this could go too far, or has gone too far, and I think the board is struggling with that and trying to balance the interest of both sides," Lobanov-Rostovsky told News5.
Lobanov-Rostovsky said the juvenile standards have already used person-first language for around a decade.
The SOMB also has a Victim Advocacy Committee, according to Lobanov-Rostovsky, who said it has been discussing person-first language as well. He said since the word victim is a label from the criminal justice system, the committee felt it was appropriate to continue to use it at this time. Lobanov-Rostovsky said the committee recognizes individuals who have been sexually abused may want different specific terms used, like the word survivor.
We are survivors, and changing how it's worded doesn't change what we've been through.
Victoria Esquibel describes herself as a survivor. "With sexual assault, especially my story, it was very much tied and related to domestic violence. It's very belittling to be sexually assaulted by someone you're supposed to be in an intimate relationship with, a loving relationship... What's really hard is when someone tells you at the end of their act, this is not rape because you are my fiance," said Esquibel.
She lived in a domestic violence relationship for nearly two years. "The reason he got 18 month probation is because he was never convicted of this charge before. Or, that I didn't come forward before. Well, the truth is that I tried, and I had a 911 call that was ignored. And he violated the restraining order two times and they threw it out, and now the criminal protection order, he violated a few weeks ago and they've thrown that out. So, every time you downplay what someone's horrible actions are, it does trigger," explained Esquibel.
Esquibel said she has always been disappointed in how the legal system handles domestic violence and sexual assault cases. "We don't ever really feel like we get the justice that is deserved, and when reading this I almost feel again that we are protecting the abuser," Esquibel said, who's initial reaction to the SOMB person-first language change was anger.
She said rehabilitation for sex offenders takes more than a name change. "You can put whatever label you want on it, but it doesn't change the fact that they have abused someone or they have sexually assaulted someone... We cannot change the word and make it go away, or make it better. We have to change the accountability piece," said Esquibel.
The person-first language change for the SOMB has left Esquibel with questions she wants answered. "There's a dictionary with definitions to words, and we can't just completely ignore that. When someone's a murderer, do we now change the word?"
News5 reached out to the 4th Judicial District for a response to the SOMB, and was provided with the following statement:
Lobanov-Rostovsky’s statements comparing people who are born with learning disabilities to sex offenders who have taken affirmative steps to sexually violate another person are disgusting. The Sex Offender Management Board should spend its valuable time on finding effective ways to treat a challenging group of convicted criminals, rather than coming up with new ways to label them. Words have meaning, and actions have consequences and labeling someone a sex offender after they have been convicted of a sex offense recognizes the gravity of committing sex offenses. The board’s efforts to change the terminology used to label people who have committed atrocious acts that violate a person in a most intimate and damaging way is misguided. This proposed change diminishes the harm done to victims at the hands of sex offenders, and there is no reputable study in existence that shows that such a change in terminology will have any measurable effect on the successful treatment of sex offenders and recidivism.
The district attorney representative for the Colorado District Attorneys' Council on the SOMB provided News5 with the following statement:
Replacing the term sex offender with person first language removes accountability from the offender and minimizes victim experiences and trauma. If the self-image of sex offenders is prioritized over the devastating impact on victims’ lives, we are concerned that would negatively impact public trust and reduce the already low reporting numbers of these crimes. We all want sex offenders to have successful treatment, but there is no established research to support that using person first language for sex offenders reduces recidivism, only an offender’s actions will accomplish that goal.